Enough with the Christmas cookies. It’s time to take a walk on the savory side of baking. The holiday season is in full swing, which means office parties, open houses, family gatherings and gifts from the kitchen. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if, instead of another batch of rum balls or Mexican wedding cakes, you showed up with something salty and crunchy: a basket of fennel-and-pepper-spiced taralli (rings) or a bundle of elegant grissini (breadsticks) as long as a baguette?
I have what my friend Ivy Manning calls a “snack tooth.” Although I like sweets just fine, I will almost always choose salt over sugar. Manning is the author of “Crackers & Dips: More than 50 Handmade Snacks” (Chronicle Books, 2013), and it is thanks to her that I often make my own savory treats rather than open up a box of Triscuit or Ritz.
“Homemade crackers are as easy to make as a batch of cookies, they are much tastier than mass-produced crackers, and they’re great to give as homemade gifts,” she writes in the book’s introduction. She’s right. Most crackers and other savory snacks are made with the simplest of ingredients: flour, oil, salt and sometimes yeast, and flavored with herbs or spice. They are usually rolled thin and baked, or sometimes fried.
Not surprisingly, the savory snacks I make tend to have an Italian accent. A few years ago, while I was visiting the southern Italian region of Puglia with my family, we more or less became addicted to taralli, those hard little bread rings that are seasoned with black pepper, hot pepper or fennel. We ate them for breakfast with fresh mozzarella and tomatoes and took them along as snacks on long day trips. Taralli are available here at some supermarkets and gourmet shops, and at Italian delis such as the Italian Store in Arlington. Nicholas Stefanelli’s restaurant, Masseria, serves very skinny ones that, in a fanciful touch, are brought to the table dangling from ceramic octopus ring holders.
I never thought to make them myself until I found a recipe in Manning’s book. They turned out so well that I don’t bother to buy them anymore. In fact, emboldened by my success, I decided to tackle another longtime favorite snack: grissini. These long, slightly crooked breadsticks, both rustic and elegant, are served in place of bread in Torino and elsewhere in Piedmont. They grace the windows of bakeries throughout the city, in baskets or stacked like kindling, some as long as 5 feet.
I was prepared for the tedious task of rolling out many small pieces of dough into long, skinny ropes in an effort to obtain the proper thinness. But the process turned out to be much simpler, not to mention fun. The pillowy dough, adapted from a recipe in “The Italian Baker,” by Carol Field, is so elastic that all you have to do is cut it into strips and gently pull each piece between your fingertips to stretch it to the right length and thickness. According to Field, Torino bakers stretch the strips to the full span of their arms, hence the breadsticks’ exaggerated length. (I had to limit mine to the length of the baking sheet.) The grissini bake quickly, even more so if you place the pan on top of a heated pizza stone or baking steel. And unlike the uniform, mass-produced breadsticks you still see at some Italian American restaurants, these have lots of snap and character.
Sometimes when I’m embarking on a cooking or baking adventure, I like to look back for inspiration, which is how I found myself paging through Pellegrino Artusi’s 19th-century cookbook, “La Scienza in Cucina e l’Arte di Mangiar Bene” (Science In the Kitchen and the Art of Eating Well). His recipe for “donzelline aromatiche” (fragrant little damsels) caught my eye, not only for its whimsical title but also because the ingredients are essentially the same as those for basic crackers, with the addition of an egg. The crackers are fried rather than baked, and the egg causes them to puff up like little blowfish when they hit the hot oil. Somehow they retain their inflated shape and crispy texture even after they’ve cooled, which makes them an impressive snack to put out at a party.
Because frying can be messy and inconvenient, I tried baking a batch, as well, with great results. The crackers did not puff up altogether, but they baked up nicely, with a few bubbles here and there. I actually prefer them this way, as they are easier to make and lighter in taste and heft. On Thanksgiving Day, I put a bowlful out alongside a colorful platter of raw vegetables and dips that a friend brought over, perfect for snacking on while we waited for the bird to roast.
Look, I’m not saying you should skip sweets or stop baking cookies — I’ve bookmarked three new recipes from this year’s Post holiday cookie roundup alone. But whether you are entertaining or delivering gifts from your kitchen, don’t forget the people in your life with snack tooths, who prefer their treats on the savory side.